When All Reason for Hope Fails

Are you facing a time of great sadness and disappointment?

Is everything that you had hoped and planned for suddenly out of reach? Do you awaken each day, wishing that you could return to an earlier time of your life when you enjoyed living?

The prophet Habakkuk also experienced these emotions. Sandwiched in among the Minor Prophets, we find his three-chapter book. Facing a terrible time that would tax anyone's hope and courage, the prophet questioned God. If God is love, how could He allow such a dreadful situation? And yet, in spite of devastating circumstances, Habakkuk ends his book with a prayer of praise to God! How could Habakkuk look at the reality of the situation and still have hope? Let's examine his prayer.

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior (Habakkuk 3:17–18, NIV).

Famines were not uncommon in ancient Israel. Whether the result of war, pestilence, or drought, they inflicted great misery and death on the inhabitants. Habakkuk's reference to the fig tree's not budding speaks of a bleak future. Without buds, there would be no fruit to later enjoy. Figs represented peace and prosperity.*

Grapes were pressed and used to make wine, which was often associated with rejoicing and times of celebration. So, the loss of grapes signaled a time of great sadness. Grapes were also eaten fresh or dried as raisins. Thus, their loss signified the absence of sweetness and fruitfulness.

Olive trees took many years to grow in the thin soil of Israel's hills, and they bore fruit only every other year.* Olives were pressed to provide oil, which was used in cooking and also as an emollient to moisten the skin. In addition, olive oil was used for the lights of the temple (Exodus 27:20.* The green olive was heated and soaked in brine, and then eaten with bread.

The most common types of grain in ancient Israel were barley, millet, spelt, and wheat.* Without the harvest of grain from the fields, the main source of food, death became a certainty. If a person does not have the most basic staple of life, strength will fail and all hope for survival disappear.

Sheep were used for sacrifices in the temple and for their milk, as well as for meat.* Cattle were also used for sacrifices and for food. The patriarchs were considered wealthy because of the number of cattle they owned. The loss of livestock represented a catastrophe. 

With all these terrible losses, how could Habakkuk rejoice?

First, the prophet pondered who God is. "His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; . . . His ways are eternal" (Habakkuk 3:3–4, 6, NIV).

Second, Habakkuk remembered what God had done in the past. "You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness" (3:13, NIV).

Third, he remembered God's promise to ultimately destroy the enemies who were invading Judah, and he purposed to wait patiently for God to fulfill His word (3:16).

Fourth, Habakkuk recognized that God was his strength, and He would give the prophet the ability not only to overcome, but also to stand "on the heights" (3:19).

Habakkuk decided to draw closer to God, and in so doing, he discovered the truth of the psalmist David's words: "I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices" (Psalm 16:8–9, NIV). In God's presence is fullness of joy (16:11).

© by Howard W. Stevens

* J. D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 798.

*Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 390.

* Douglas and Tenney, The New International Dictionary of the Bible, 802. Ibid., 799.

* Ibid., 60.